Chopin: Pianos Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (CD review)

Akiko Ebi, piano (No. 1); Janusz Olejniczak, piano (No. 2); Frans Bruggen, Orchestra of the 18th Century. Frederic Chopin Institute NIFCCD 042.

This disc has a lot going for it: It features a prominent, prizewinning Japanese-French pianist, Akiko Ebi, as the soloist in the First Concerto; and an equally distinguished soloist, the Polish pianist (and actor) Janusz Olejniczak in the Second. The conductor is the late Frans Bruggen, who knew his way around historically informed performances. The band is the Orchestra of the 18th Century, who have been playing on period instruments since their founding in 1981. And the performers use dated scores after the National Edition of the Works of Fryderyk Chopin.

On the other hand, not everything works. The performances have a good deal of competition and despite their "authenticity" seem little more than ordinary in a crowded field. What's more, the live sound, taken from two Chopin festivals, too often betrays its live origins.

First, to the music: Chopin wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1830, within a year following his Piano Concerto No. 2. However, he published No. 1 first, so if No. 1 seems the more mature of the two, it actually is by several months. Chopin described the second movement of No. 1 as "reviving in one's soul beautiful memories." In Chopin's case, he composed the piece when he was about nineteen or twenty and smitten with a beautiful young student, Constantia Gladkowska, at the Warsaw Conservatory. Even though he barely talked to her and she soon married somebody else, he may have had her in mind when he wrote his piano concertos, as well as a few other things.

Naturally, the piano parts dominate both piano concertos, the better to showcase Chopin's own virtuosity on the instrument. Yet with the Piano Concerto No. 1, the piano doesn't even enter the picture until the end of a fairly lengthy orchestral introduction. Maybe Chopin intended the prolonged preamble to make the piano's entrance all the more grand. It certainly works that way.

Anyhow, Chopin wrote the concerto at a time when he and other pianists were breaking from what we know today as the "brilliant" style in favor of pure Romanticism That is, they were getting a little away from sheer virtuosity and ornamentation and more into lyricism and emotion. So, that's the way Ms. Ebi, Maestro Bruggen, and the Orchestra of the 18th Century appear to play the concerto, with a combination of the "brilliant" and "Romantic" styles.

Akiko Ebi
For those listeners worried that perhaps a period-instrument approach to this music would produce some exceedingly fast tempos, there is no such thing here. Indeed, if anything, both soloist and orchestra take the tempos in rather a leisurely fashion. The opening of the First Concerto seems quite heady, even at a relaxed pace, but then when Ms. Ebi enters, she takes the score in a fairly matter-of-pace manner. There is little misty-eyed Romanticism here, just an apparently note-for-note reading. Indeed, I felt little joy, warmth, or expressiveness in the playing. However, I confess that the performances of pianists like Maurizio Pollini and Martha Argerich may have conditioned me to such an extent that I was not able fully to appreciate what Ms. Ebi was up to.

The slow second movement and the robust final movement go by in what I thought was perfunctory fashion as well. Nothing about the performance actually moved me much; it all sounded too deliberate, which may be entirely the intent, I don't know. Let's just say that Ebi and Bruggen attempt something a bit out of the ordinary, and except for a little spark in the final section it didn't work for me.

The Second Piano Concerto hasn't as much poetic grace as the First Concerto or such an abundance of good melodies, which is probably why it has never become as popular, but it does showcase the piano considerably. On the present recording we find Janusz Olejniczak taking the solo part. I sensed a greater flexibility in his playing than in Ebi's, yet not quite enough for me to recommend this disc over its rivals. The exception, of course, is whether the novelty of the period instruments impresses you. For me, it didn't.

Producer Stanislaw Leszczynski and engineers Lech Dudzik and Gabriela Blicharz recorded the performances live during the "Chopin and his Europe" festivals in 2013 (No. 1) and 2010 (No. 2) in the Witold Lutoslawski Concert Studio of Polish Radio and the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall.

The live sound appears a tad warm, congested, and broad, with occasional audience noise (coughs, grunts, and the like). At least it's not too close-up, as many live performances tend to be, but fairly natural in its perspective. Still, the moderate miking distance does no favors to transparency (although, to be fair, it's better in the Second Concerto), and the overall impression is hardly clean. I could also easily have done without the closing applause in both works. Let's just say the sound of this disc is more a memento of a live event than anything you'd want to put on to show off your stereo system.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa